Borderline personality disorder often goes hand-in-hand with a lot of bewildering contradictions (hence the term “borderline” in reference to the division of the personality):
-too-close emotional relationships versus far-too-distant relationships
-over-the-top feelings of love and sentimentality versus over-the-top feelings of rage and hate;
-feeling one way and acting another;
-thinking one thing and saying another; etc. etc.
It’s this contradictory aspect of BPD that made it very, very difficult for me to approach the dialectical behaviour therapy (DBT) technique known as ‘opposite action.”
In fact, it took me months to even consider the concept: I thought it sounded far too similar to what I’d already been doing for years – lying, acting, performing, building a hollow exterior that I initially used as protection and later found to be a very real and effective prison for my emotions, my thoughts, my identity. I had no interest in learning to “adopt a smile” (as one of the DBT handouts suggested) when I felt rage or despair – I was already too damn good at that already, thanks very much. What a stupid suggestion, right?
However, what I would not have learned if I had just been reviewing the DBT sheets/info on my own, is that opposite action is actually NOT duplicity at all. It’s not ignoring what you’re actually feeling, nor is it acting or lying, and it should never be a performance for anyone – least of all yourself. I thought our group leader explained it way better than any of the DBT materials did.
In a nutshell, opposite action means doing what is most helpful, effective and healthy for yourself when you feel like doing what is harmful, ineffective and unhealthy.
It’s widely acknowledged as one of the hardest DBT skills to master – for anyone, let alone for borderlines – because it involves directly opposing the habits and instincts that have become second nature to us over many years. Furthermore, borderlines are so accustomed to feeling invalidated that any effort to do the opposite of what feels cathartic (i.e. not screaming in rage when you feel extreme rage) feels like a typical dismissal of our painfully strong emotions, which is exactly what caused and defines the condition (a key piece, as discussed in my last post on the utmost importance of SELF-validation).
Today I struggled with a situation I have encountered dozens, probably hundreds of times. Yesterday evening I felt I had exposed my feelings to a friend – I thought I had made it pretty clear how awful and invalidated I felt. That friend (my roommate, incidentally) didn’t say anything that felt validating, and they left no indication that the conversation meant anything at all to them. Ouch and ouch. A BPDer’s nightmare: making yourself vulnerable and feeling totally rejected and invalidated by the experience – thus adding to the extensive catalogue of identical experiences, which we keep an unforgivable grip on in order to feed the familiar and “safe” belief that no one cares, no one can help, and we might as well give up on everyone else as well as ourselves.
Typically, pre-DBT and before I knew anything about identifying harmful instincts let alone resisting them, I would have spent today doing two things: 1) being utterly miserable, depressed and furious with myself for being vulnerable enough to let something make me feel this way; 2) Doing everything I could to express and validate my pain to myself and, even more so, to “punish” the person who hurt me by showing how deeply they hurt me. I’d probably spend the day wallowing in bed, popping sleeping pills whenever I woke up, so that my roommate would see how horrible they’d made me feel yesterday, how horrible a friend they were to me. If I was feeling really down, I’d probably stay awake enough to let myself take a trip down memory lane – feeding my pain, my despair, my self-righteous anger with plenty of examples from the past that prove how right I am to feel that way. And those kinds of memories can get bad enough to lead to worse kinds of self-harm, working me deeper and deeper into a hole that takes more and more self-punishment to communicate just how bad things are. It culminates in an impossible situation: I feel so awful that I can’t let anything good or positive even enter my mind, because doing so feels like dismissing (and further invalidating) all the pain that will never be healed.
Just writing that made me feel a bit sick and in a pretty dark spot.
So, moving on.
Opposite action is THE exercise du jour for moments like these. I’m far from adept at it – in fact I’m actually kind of awful at it for the time being – but I’ve been specifically focusing on it for a couple weeks now to try to get my head around it. Aside from resisting pathways my brain, body and emotions have taken for over two decades, the other hardest part about opposite action is that its core motivation is self-care and self-love. Just removing – even for one minute – the conviction that you don’t deserve to feel better and you shouldn’t have to take care of yourself is a big deal and huge accomplishment for a borderline. Once you can accept that you need your own love and acceptance first, you can start giving it through opposite actions. Some examples:
-If you feel a harmful level of anger or self-destructive rage coming on, think and verbalize the realization: “I’m getting really angry and I deserve to feel angry about being hurt, but this is not going to help me right now.” Then (opposite action) ‘treat’ that anger with things that soothe and/or release it: videos or photos that make you laugh, a soothing meditation clip (on youtube or grooveshark), or a really long intensive stretch or workout session in which you focus on releasing anger from your body.
-If you feel stressed and overwhelmed about life, do activities that make you feel organized and in control: make to-do lists (and address each item mindfully, not worrying about all the other items but addressing each one with your full attention), finish some task that has been hanging over you, clean your house/room (this is a favourite of mine! I am big on the notion that a clear and tidy environment helps your mind feel the same way), cook something in bulk and freeze portions so that you are prepared for future lunches or dinners that week.
-If you feel worthless, choose activities that remind you that you have great worth: perform random acts of kindness, ask a good friend or family member to tell you what they like about you, or do something nice for your kids or pets if you have them (an extra long walk with the dog, building a little fort for your cat, or a special outing with kids) – there is no quicker hit of self-worth than the look on a child or animal’s face when you are doing something wonderful for them! *Disclaimer: ok, let’s be honest, it is unlikely a cat will deign to grace you with any display of gratitude, but you can probably imagine that they’re just hiding it well…*
-If you feel sad, pretend that someone you really care about has told you they’re feeling in need of comfort and then treat yourself that way: draw a hot bath, give yourself a long body scrub and moisturize, savour a delicious treat (but try not to give into emotional over-eating), watch a movie that makes you feel comforted, wallow in cozy clothes and blankets, read a book that makes you happy, or do anything else that absorbs your attention and comforts you without trying to mask or suppress the pain and sadness.
-If you feel weak and beaten down by life, do and consume things that make you feel strong: eat well (lots of protein, B12, and iron, which are big components of energy levels), drink tons of water (you really don’t know real fatigue until you’re both depressed and dehydrated, trust me!), and work the wonderful body you’ve been gifted: lift soup cans while watching tv, explore youtube for exercises you like, or put on your iPod and run from your house as far as you can each day before walking home – start with literally 30-60 seconds run if that’s all you can manage. I am a lifelong enemy of exercise but I cannot deny that taking on even a tiny workout routine (I try for just 15 minutes a day of simple ballet-based exercises) and seeing the results build up over months has given me a LOT of strength in many different ways. To stay motivated and feel stronger, read, watch and think about things that inspire (not intimidate or depress) you – books or videos about any figure you admire who overcame adversity and persevered.
It’s worth noting that opposite action is obviously not the only technique or solution for dealing with difficult emotions: sometimes it isn’t called for, and it takes a lot of self-awareness to learn to recognize those times you really need to indulge your emotions (to an extent) in order to validate and release (e.g. them with a sad movie and a private sob-fest), versus the times you really need to resist indulging those emotions so they don’t turn destructive.
So, what am I actually doing today? Sitting here on a hot day in a long-sleeved shirt (opposite of thinking about cutting), watching a childhood favourite cartoon (opposite of focusing on angry, vengeful thoughts), enjoying tea with a few squares of dark chocolate (opposite of eating nothing to punish myself), and writing this post with the hope of helping others with this awful disorder (opposite of focusing on feeling cut off, lonely and pointless/worthless). Did I manage to do these things without indulging in a tiny bit of destructive emotions? No, and I now really, really regret the extremely bitchy text I sent my friend for what happened yesterday. Sigh. 😦 But I’m trying not to focus on that just now. Mistakes are inevitable.
It makes me cringe quite a bit to say this (God how I still hate this self-validation/self-care thing) but in spite of the slip-up furious text, I am pretty fucking proud of myself right now. It’s years since I could experience something as strong as the anger that comes from feeling invalidated and do anything but implode in various self-destructive ways.
Do you ever use opposite action? Please share any suggestions you have with me….
Cat Earnshaw xx